How the GMAT Works

By: Dave Roos
An ultra-modern classroom at the University of Connecticut School of Business. See more corporation pictures.
An ultra-modern classroom at the University of Connecticut School of Business. See more corporation pictures.
Sean D. Elliot/AP Images

For better or for worse, standardized tests are the gatekeepers of higher education. Almost every college, university and graduate program includes a standardized test among its admissions requirements. The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is used by institutions worldwide to evaluate applicants to graduate business and management programs. For students in the United States, the GMAT is most closely associated with applying to master of business administration (MBA) programs at a business school.

The GMAT has been administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) -- a global consortium of nearly 200 business schools -- since 1954 [source: GMAC]. The test is part of the selection criteria of more than 4,500 programs at 1,900 institutions in 81 countries.


Even with the economic slump (or perhaps because of it), more than 267,000 people worldwide took the GMAT in 2009 -- the most in the history of the exam [source: Bradshaw]. The GMAT boom is being fueled by increased participation from non-U.S. test-takers, particularly the Chinese, whose participation jumped by 35 percent in 2009. That was also the first year in which non-U.S. test-takers outnumbered their American counterparts [source: Bradshaw].

The GMAT -- much like the SAT, GRE, the LSAT and the MCAT -- is a long, intentionally difficult exam that requires much practice and preparation. There is no "minimum" GMAT score to get into business school, since schools vary in competitiveness and in the amount in which they weigh GMAT scores as part of the application process.

That said, if you want to get into a highly competitive program, it might be helpful to know that the median GMAT score at the top 50 business schools is 660 out of a possible 800. Harvard, Wharton (University of Pennsylvania), Stanford, Sloan (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Yale business schools -- widely considered the cream of the crop -- all have median scores above 700 [source: GMAT CAT].

You can take the GMAT as many times as you want. Some schools only look at your highest scores, while others take an average of each score. The biggest limiting factors are time and money; the test takes four hours to complete and costs $250 each time you take it.

While there is no foolproof trick to "cracking" the GMAT, there are many things you can do to improve your score and lower your stress on test day. Keep reading to find out exactly what kinds of questions are asked on the GMAT.


GMAT Questions

The GMAT doesn't measure your business knowledge or test you on any specific subject areas from your college studies. Instead, the GMAT is designed to test general mathematical, verbal and analytical writing skills to give business schools an accurate assessment of your potential as a first-year student.

The GMAT is divided into three sections: the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA), Quantitative Section and Verbal Section. The AWA is divided into two 30-minute tasks: Analysis of an Issue and Analysis of an Argument.


In the Analysis of an Issue section, you're given two opposing opinions on a business-related issue. You must explain your own point of view on the issue using information and observations formed by your own experience and understanding. There's no correct answer. Responses are evaluated for organization, clarity, command of written English and the use of relevant examples.

In the Analysis of an Argument section, you're given an argument taken from a business publication. Your job is to analyze and critique the reasoning behind the argument. Are there any faulty assumptions that weaken the premise? Can you think of any alternative scenarios or examples that could challenge or strengthen the argument [source:]? Essays are evaluated for your ability to formulate a well-organized, clearly written critique of the argument based on logical thinking.

The Quantitative Section presents two types of multiple-choice questions: problem-solving questions using basic arithmetic, algebra and geometry; and data-sufficiency questions that test your ability to identify relevant and useful information to solve a mathematical problem.

The problem-solving questions are straightforward and are similar to those found on the math section of the SAT or GRE. The data-sufficiency section, however, is unique to the GMAT. Every question consists of a mathematical problem and two statements of fact related to the problem. You must determine if the information in each of the statements is sufficient enough to answer the question, indicating whether only one statement is sufficient, both are sufficient, neither is sufficient, or neither is sufficient by itself, but combine to solve the problem.

The Verbal Section contains multiple-choice questions divided into three categories: Reading Comprehension, Critical Reasoning, and Sentence Correction. The Reading Comprehension requires you to read a short passage [source:]. The associated questions test your understanding of the concepts presented, the organization and flow of arguments, and your ability to make logical inferences from the material.

The Critical Reasoning questions test your ability to use information from a short passage of text to solve a related problem. For Sentence Correction questions, you're asked to recognized awkwardness and ambiguities in sample paragraphs and choose the best answer to replace them.

If this sounds like a lot to cover in one test, don't despair. Keep reading to learn how to prepare for the GMAT.


Preparing for the GMAT

The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
Rusty Kennedy/AP Images

With a standardized test like the GMAT, the key to success is to become intimately familiar with each type of question on the test and comfortable with the test-taking format. Studies by the GMAC show that the longer people prepare for the exam, the better they perform [source: Manhattan Review]. Give yourself at least four weeks of study time before taking the test, although each person has different study requirements depending on how long you've been out of school and how comfortable you are with writing and math.

There are several excellent free resources for familiarizing yourself with each section and sub-section of the exam. The GMAT area of the official Web site has detailed articles and sample questions for each section. The Web site also includes hundreds of sample essay prompts from the AWA section alone.


Once you're familiar with each question type, it's time to practice, practice, practice. Get hands-on experience with the computer-adaptive test-taking format by downloading the free GMATPrep software available from The software includes 15 sample questions from each section of the test and works exactly like the software you'll use on test day. You can also take a free, full-length online practice test through the Princeton Review website.

If you're unaccustomed to reading long passages of text on a computer screen or typing essays on a keyboard, then you need to make special preparations to get comfortable with the computer environment as the test approaches.

For more practice, you can choose from a wide variety of GMAT test preparation books. Some specialize in test-taking strategies and advice, while others are stuffed with thousands of sample questions. The GMAC offers several "official" titles, and there are dozens of annually updated titles from test prep services like The Princeton Review and Kaplan.

Test prep services promise to teach proven test-taking strategies and fundamental verbal and quantitative skills through classroom instruction and tutoring. A study of SAT test prep services found that they had a minimal, but proven effect on raising test scores [source: Inside Higher ED]. Companies like The Princeton Review and Kaplan have expanded on their traditional classroom and tutoring services to offer online test prep courses and even live online tutoring.

In addition to preparing for the test itself, you need to prepare for the rules and regulations surrounding the testing day. Find out more on the next page.


GMAT Test Day

One advantage of the computer-adaptive test format is that you can sign up to take the GMAT five days a week all year long (depending on location). To schedule a GMAT appointment, visit the Web site or contact your national appointment center by phone or mail. You can make an appointment up to six months in advance.

The GMAC has established uniform procedures and rules to be followed at every GMAT test-taking location. The test administrator reserves the right to kick you out at any time for breaking a rule, so take them seriously and come prepared. Carefully read the GMAT Information Bulletin before you arrive as to avoid any last-minute problems or disqualifications.


When you arrive at the test-taking location, the test administrator will ask for a valid, government-issued photo ID: passport, driver's license, government-issued national/state/province ID card or military ID [source:]. Your name on the ID needs to exactly match the name on record.

The administrator will then digitally record your signature, fingerprint and/or a "palm vein" pattern (an infrared scanner that records the unique pattern of veins under the skin of your palm) and a photograph. If you refuse any of these procedures, you won't be allowed to take the test.

You will also need to sign a non-disclosure agreement and terms of use of the exam. Once again, if you refuse, you can't take the test.

Don't bother bringing anything with you into the exam area. You can't bring any "testing aids" with you, including pens, scratch paper, calculators, rulers, watches, dictionaries and pretty much any electronic device (PDAs, cellphones, pagers, cameras, translators and more) [source:]. Instead, the test administrator will provide you with a bound booklet of five "noteboards" -- small wet-erase boards -- that can be used for scratch paper and must be returned at the end of the exam.

You have four hours to complete the GMAT with two optional breaks. During breaks, you can leave the testing room to retrieve food from your locker or use the bathroom, but you're required to use the fingerprint or palm vein pattern scanner every time you leave or re-enter the room. You cannot talk to anybody about the test during your breaks and you can't make any phone calls. If you take more than the allotted time for your break, the excess minutes will be subtracted from your testing time.


GMAT Test-Taking Strategies

With the old paper version of the GMAT, everyone in the room received the same test, and the test questions in each section progressed from easy questions to harder ones. The logical test-taking strategy was to answer the easier questions first and save the more difficult for last, skipping around when necessary.

The computer-adaptive test format changes everything. First of all, unlike the paper version, you can't skip a question and come back to it. If you leave a question unanswered, that's your final answer. Since there is a much higher penalty for not answering a question than for answering it incorrectly (test prep services estimate four times the penalty), you should always take an educated guess (or if time is running out, a wild guess) [source: Manhattan Review].


The second major difference with the computer-adaptive test is that questions in each section don't progress predictably from easy to hard. Instead, the computer "adapts" the test questions to your abilities.

Here's how it works. The computer starts each section with some medium-difficulty questions. If you answer those first questions correctly, the computer automatically bumps you up to a higher level. If you get a few wrong, you are bumped back down. In this way, the difficulty level of any question depends on how well you answered the one before it. Harder questions generally mean higher scores, so it's always best to keep the difficulty level up.

Use your time wisely. Know how much time you have to complete each section of the test, how many questions are in each section, and keep moving at an even pace. On average, you have 1.75 minutes for every verbal question and two minutes for every quantitative [source:].

If possible, don't rush and don't skim. Read all instructions, test questions and answers fully. Many correct answers rely on subtle details in the question that can be overlooked if you're moving too quickly.

If there's no obvious correct answer, try to eliminate choices that are illogical or at least highly unlikely to be correct. Sometimes you can do this by using simple common sense (could the answer really be a negative number?). In math questions, particularly algebra, you can eliminate incorrect answers by plugging them back into variables the question. If you can eliminate all but two answers, take your best guess. It's better than leaving it blank.

Don't forget to confirm your answer! In the computer-adaptive format, it's not enough to select an answer, you must also confirm it before moving on to the next question. Remember, you can't go back, so double-check your answer before confirming.


Scoring the GMAT

The Spangler Student Center at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass.
The Spangler Student Center at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass.
Ron Haviv/AP Images

GMAT scoring is not straightforward. For example, there are 41 multiple-choice questions in the Verbal Section and 37 in the Quantitative Section, but both sections are scored on a scale from zero to 60. How is that possible? The GMAT software uses special algorithms to arrive at a "scaled" score for each section. These algorithms calculate much more than simple right and wrong answers. They also account for the difficulty of the questions and the number of questions that were left unanswered.

Since the test is almost entirely scored by computer, test-takers receive an "unofficial" score report immediately after completing the exam. An official score arrives a few weeks later. If you finish the test and know that you didn't do well, you have the option of canceling your score before you even see the unofficial version.


When you receive your official GMAT score report, it will include four different scaled scores: Verbal Scaled Score (0 to 60), Quantitative Scaled Score (0 through 60), AWA Score (0 through 6) and the Total Scaled Score (200 to 800).

As we talked about on the test-taking strategies page, the computer-adaptive test format caters the difficulty level of the exam to each test-taker's abilities, so each person receives a unique series of questions based on his or her performance throughout the test.

The "scaled" score is not a total of correct and incorrect answers, but a weighted value assigned to the overall performance of the test-taker. The computer is constantly recalculating the scaled score throughout the section, refining its estimation of the test-taker's skill level.

If you think about the scoring process as "refining" an overall assessment of skill level, then you realize that the earlier questions are weighted more heavily than the later ones [source: TestMasters]. For example, if you get the first question wrong, then the computer has only one piece of evidence to calculate your skill level. But by the time you get to the 40thquestion, the computer has already had 39 opportunities to refine its assessment. So your answer to the 40thquestion won't change your scaled score dramatically in either direction.

The AWA is scored differently. Both of the sections are read by a human reader and a computerized essay-scoring engine. Each one assigns the essays a value from zero to six. If the human and computer score differ by more than one point, then a second human reader is brought in to determine the final score. Human readers are specially trained college and university faculty members. If you believe your AWA section was scored incorrectly, you can ask for a rescore up to six months after your test date.

The Total Scaled Score is an overall score with 200 being the lowest and 800 being the highest. Since there are only 60 points in each multiple-choice section and six points in the AWA section, the total scale score is another scaled assessment of overall skill level, not a total of right and wrong answers.

Two-thirds of GMAT test-takers score between 400 and 600 and only 10 percent get 700 or above [source: TestMasters]. The median score (which exactly half of test-takers get above or below) is 550.

For more information on standardized tests and higher education, look at the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Bradshaw, Della. "More students take GMAT." Financial Times. December 17, 2009,dwp_uuid=02e16f4a-46f9-11da-b8e5-00000e2511c8.html
  • Damast, Alison. "Crackdown on China GMAT Cheating." BusinessWeek. December 3, 2009
  • GMAT CAT. "Average GMAT Scores: Median GMAT Scores"
  • Inside Higher Ed. "Test Prep, to What End?" May 20, 2009
  • Manhattan Review. "GMAC London Summit: GMAT Test Preparation Works!" October 5, 2009
  • Manhattan Review. "The Ins and Outs of Your GMAT Score III - Computer-Adaptive Test Strategies." November 13, 2007
  • "Analytical Writing Assessment Section"
  • "Presenting Proper Identification"
  • "Test-Taking Strategies."
  • "Verbal Section"
  • "What to Bring to the Test Center"
  • TestMasters. "The GMAT Scoring Scale"